BLACK AND BLONDE
TOO STUNNING to be pretty, Anne Ronsard was in her late twenties maybe, not that you could tell. Slim and mid-height in a short black skirt and black cashmere sweater, black hair in a page boy across high-boned cheeks, flashing black eyes, a slender face with dimples, a sharp nose just a little too big, a tough smile in a wide, voluptuous mouth. A sense about her of adventure: someone who loves. And the stern glance of someone who’s seen too much and therefore doesn’t believe in much of anything.
Except protecting family and friends, and the country she loves. And with the strength, courage and power to do it.
“Voilá!” She moved aside in the corridor so I could see my “office.” Like most intelligence folks, Thierry had misspoken: it was smaller than a broom closet. A desk with a phone and a bunch of buttons – “internal,” Anne said. Four computers with keyboards in Arabic, French, Russian and English – “internal” also. A chair that had survived the 1870 German siege of Paris and howled like a burnt cat every time it moved. A second chair of the aluminum type and, as the French would say, vastly degraded.
“On est bien ici,” (This is great) I said sarcastically.
“Oh oui,” she replied enthusiastically. “On a de la chance.” (You’re lucky)
“Comment ça?” I replied (How is that?)
Her chin rose: the icy look of a French woman about to admonish a dumb but dutiful servant. “You don’t like?”
“Let’s go see Mack’s car.”
She led me down corridors out the back to the garage and a gleaming red Indian Scout motorcycle, unhitched two helmets from the saddle and gave me one.
My heart sank. I’d been in three bad motorcycle wrecks and had sworn off bikes forever. Have a number of friends now dead or crippled for life from riding them. Every motorcycle, statistics show, will kill or badly injure at least one person in its lifetime.
I nodded at the Indian. “Not on that.”
She buckled her helmet, tucking her black hair inside it. “Afraid?”
“You can ride that ugly thing if you want but I’m getting a car.” (Vous pouvez conduire cette chose moche si ça vous plaît. Mais moi, je vais prendre une voiture.) I took a breath, rather pleased with myself for such a long harangue.
She slapped the back seat. “Get on!”
She was right; we didn’t have time. I’ve jumped from airplanes, been shot at, climbed nasty cliffs and fell off a few, took on killer waves with sad results, and have done many other dangerous things and yet survived. So what was one more high-speed motorcycle crash?
She gunned the Indian, turned back to me. “By the way, on our team we don’t vouvoyer each other. We’re family, we use the family tense. You could say Tu peux conduire cette chose moche, but that’s very ugly French. No one will listen to you if you talk like that.”
We roared out the heavily guarded DGSE exit right on Boulevard Mortier and howled through ratty roads to the Péréphérique, the high-speed four-lane highway that circles and chokes Paris, much of it along the old line of the city’s castle walls.
Walls that do no good anymore because the attacker is already inside.
She accelerated fast, darting in and out among cars and down the narrow spaces between them, me holding on dearly around her trim waist, my forearms across her bare thighs where she’d tugged up her short skirt to wrap her legs around the hundred pulsing horses of the Indian’s snarling screaming engine, and I leaned when she did and tried not to show that I was terrified and sure we were both going to die.
Nonetheless we didn’t die, and after what seemed an eternity we pulled into the Préfecture of Police forensic garage, where technicians from the INPS, the National Institute of Scientific Police, were going over Mack’s car.
A black BMW M240. 6-cylinder turbo, 335 Horsepower, a 6-speed stick and fast Pirellis. A demon car. A technician in white was leaning in the open driver door, another swabbing the back seat. When they saw Anne they stood up. “What you got?” she said.
“Cherchez la femme,” one grinned.
“It was a woman in the car,” the other said. “Who hit him.”
“Nuts!” Anne snapped.
“She left a hair. A long black hair dyed blonde.”
“Maybe his wife?” the first said.
“She has short blonde hair. And doesn’t dye it,” Anne pointed out.
I could have told them that. And Gisèle has always worn her hair short, ever since I first knew her when she and Mack hooked up in Waziristan.
“This could’ve been some other time. Anybody.”
“No, it’s fresh. She took a shower this morning. Le Petit Marseillais Shampoo with Shea Butter and Honey. Made in France.”
“Merde,” Anne said very quietly. “You got this already?”
“We’re not stupid.”
“How you know she hit him?”
“When she reached across from the passenger seat and hit the back of his head, a few molecules of his blood spattered on her hair, this hair, that got caught in the seat belt and broke off when she pulled back.” He shrugged. “That’s how it seems.”
Anne turned to me. “This makes no sense. Let’s go see Gisèle.”
“I’ll call her,” I said.
Gisèle’s land line was still busy. “Maybe she’s gone shopping,” Anne said.
“When her husband’s missing?”
We jumped on the Indian for another shorter but equally mind-blowing trip through raging traffic and smog on the Péréphérique, up Avenue Foch – named for one of France’s many World War I generals under whose command 1.4 million young Frenchmen died – and around the Étoile’s grand Arc de Triomphe, which in true Roman fashion celebrates Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz, in which many more thousands died. And all the Pyrrhic victories since.
We decelerated like a returning space shuttle to the 16th Arrondissement and Mack and Gisèle’s house.
It didn’t matter how many times we rang the bell or called the land line, Gisèle didn’t answer. “You don’t have her cell?” Anne said sharply.
“Just the land line.”
“Where you from, the last century?”
She was getting irritated because things weren’t looking good. “I’ll call Thierry,” she snapped. “He’ll have her cell.”
For an insidious moment I thought of a prison cell not a cell phone, and was back pacing a cell of my own, even the one in Beirut, worst of them all.
Five minutes later Thierry called with Gisèle’s cell number, but it too didn’t answer. “Merde, merde et merde!” Anne hissed, stalking back and forth, lit a cigarette, took one puff and tossed it in the gutter. She called Thierry again; even I could understand her angry slang, “This’s truly screwed up.”
He said something and she nodded at me. “We need to go in.”
“Mack’ll have tons of security on that door,” I said. As if she wouldn’t know.
“Thierry’s sending someone.”
I’d been barely five hours in France and already Mack was missing, injured and maybe dead, clobbered by a woman with dyed blonde hair. And now his wife was missing too.
She could be at a meeting. But the medical office where she worked as a spinal injury specialist said she hadn’t been there all day.
Why wouldn’t she answer?
I was dead tired. Grainy eyes, slumping shoulders, aching spine, the dizzy unreality after a long flight, when midnight is noon, and the bright Pacific becomes the rainy Paris smog.
I bent over hands on knees and took a breath. On Tahiti it’d be nearly sunrise now; soon Lexie would leave for her endless flight back to Maine, Abigail would be patrolling the beaches for some hunk she couldn’t turn down, and Erica would be earning eight hundred bucks an hour lounging on the lanai drinking gin, smoking weed, and writing briefs for clients on the other side of the world.
Thierry’s ‘someone’ arrived ten minutes later, a balding potbellied guy with a thin black mustache and mothy black sweater, in his mid-forties, a worn black jacket, beret and jeans, with a strange cell phone and a little toolkit he took from his pocket. Five minutes later we followed him into Mack and Gisèle’s house, expecting to find her dead on the floor.
Room by room we checked, the double séjour, the dining room, the four bedrooms and assorted baths. On the kitchen counter lay the flashing phone, off the hook.
Dead or alive, Gisèle was not there.
THE HALAL TRUCK wandered the bumpy rutted streets of Mosul for maybe ten minutes. Away from the Coalition sector deep into the lawless labyrinth where our soldiers had not yet gone to conquer and die.
In the distance you heard the normal gunfire and explosions: just a regular afternoon in Mosul. Occasionally the jangle of Arab music, the rumble of vehicles or clatter of voices. “This’s got to be the Shia quarter,” I whispered to Mack, and a crushing pain thudded into my kidneys.
“Shut up,” somebody said. “Or I kill.”
Despair washed over me. No way we’d survive this. The pain in my kidneys from being kicked radiated out into my body and linked to my despair: the antithesis of life. Why had I come to this bedeviled, beleaguered country to fight these fanatics?
I’d ended up fighting the Taliban in the rough frigid mountains of Afghanistan, settling scores for what the Saudis had done to the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and all the poor people on the United and American flights who died that day. I’d seen the pictures of people jumping to their deaths from the burning buildings. And I was going to avenge them.
Then GW Bush told Tommy Franks at CENTCOM to let Osama Bin Laden escape from Tora Bora. It took a while for us to figure out what had happened, that indeed we’d had Bin Laden pinned down and GW let him walk with a thousand Al Qaeda across the Paki border into the wilds of Waziristan. Because GW wanted Bin Laden alive so he could say that Saddam Hussein was sheltering him in Baghdad, and thus we had to attack Iraq. Then he lied, 264 times according to the record, about Iraq’s so-called Weapons of Mass Destruction, and to prove he was a man, he and five-time draft-dodger Vice President Cheney, had sucked our combat effort dry in Afghanistan, and sent me and so many of my comrades into the endless pit of horror, danger and despair known as Iraq. A soldier can know a war is evil and wrong, but he doesn’t get to choose whether or not he fights in it.
Now, rattling through the dusty, hot and fetid Mosul streets in the back of the halal truck – halal being the Muslim butchering process of hanging an animal upside down and cutting its throat so it bleeds to death – I realized how ironic it was.
They were going to cut our throats too.